Constructing the Intimate: Places of Pleasure in “Songs of Myself” and Venus in Boston

The idea of place, in both the abstract and physical sense of the word, has been at the forefront of our class discussions.  It also seems to be the connecting thread between Walt Whitman’s “Songs of Myself” and George Thompson’s Venus in Boston: and Other Tales of Nineteenth-Century City Life.  In my previous blog post I write about what I perceive as Whitman constructing a place to simultaneously construct and deconstruct the Self, a place where the fragmented Self is constructed and performed.

In class we discussed another angle of place that Whitman seems to be interrogating.  The section we looked at, 61, emphasizes place and then transitions to pleasure in 62.  Prof. Guerra posed this question: how can we locate pleasure?

In Thompson’s stories pleasure is located in the “darkness” of one’s interior Self.  His association with “darkness” as dangerous is another blog post in itself, a biased/racist trope which continues to color our media and perceptions of other people and places.  During our class discussion we seemed fixated on the idea of feelings of disgust as a means of displacement.  The displacement readers feel seems to occur at those constructed places of intimacy.  The effect of this is the linking of constructed places of intimacy as danger zones which must be patrolled.

While Venus in Boston is both racist and sexist, it functions as sort of a microcosm (or it attempts to create a microcosm) of the culture and society it is being written in, much like all art.  These microcosms either continue a particular discourse or challenge or resist a discourse.

The pornography industry provides an interesting site for a broader public to construct, at the least, an external place to project and engage in spectacles deemed debased by the moral codes of the larger society.  I would argue that Venus in Boston is itself a sort of proto-porn.  Certain prototypes are played up—Fanny’s angelic blue eyes and her state of poverty are romanticized an amplified.

The class found that intimacy is treated in two different ways in Thompson’s narrative.  As the reader is confronted with more and more confined spaces, the intimacy level increases.  As we get more intimate, the more disgusting and grotesque the narration becomes.  This is where the patrolling function of the text is most obvious.  In my ENG220 class we are analyzing monsters and their patrolling function in the cultures they originate from.  In many ways our conversation reminded me of Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” and the way the grotesque often function as a patrolling body in culture.

Why would pleasure and intimacy be constructed as places of danger?  I think part of the reason is it involves our most internal mechanisms—it originates within a space which is heavily influenced by society and other outside actors (as Foucault would say, we are disciplined and our bodies are controlled by even inanimate objects which are infused with authority), but which we ultimately construct and patrol.

How exactly are places of pleasure/intimacy constructed within one’s Self?

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About nuancednadia

I write. I read. I gyaff. Occasionally, I travel.
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2 Responses to Constructing the Intimate: Places of Pleasure in “Songs of Myself” and Venus in Boston

  1. This is so fascinating! So happy I’ve stumbled upon this blog. As a writer with a literary blog, I love whitman, and you’ve really opened my eyes to aspects of him I’ve never thought of. Great and insightful post!

    • nuancednadia says:

      Thanks so much for reading! I really enjoy the posts you’ve written on your blog. I love The Paris Review, but it is very refreshing (and important) to continue the conversation as it ends on the page of these literary publications.

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